american gods

I just finished reading Neil Gaiman's novel American Gods. Well written and pretty interesting. I used to enjoy comic books by him years ago. This story is about a clash between the "old gods" of classic mythology, brought here by immigrants, and the "new gods" of modern American culture. Gaiman obviously finds the old gods more appealing. His new gods are pretty vague and undeveloped as characters. I like one of his main observations, though, that the old gods are dying because they need people to believe in them in order to exist.

Belief seems very important in the book, but this belief is presented as very individualistic (not surprising these days) and so misrepresents the nature and worship of such gods. That probably also explains why Gaiman seems unable to clearly recognize the new gods of our modern culture. It's said again and again that America is "a bad place for gods." But why? And is that really true?

The classic gods of various cultures throughout history were not the gods of individual devotion, but the gods of a particular culture, a particular group of people. They only made sense, and only had power, in the context of that group of people. As I've written before, the power of idols, of false gods, has always been (and still is) "the power of the people." Gaiman presents a eclectic mix of gods from various cultures, those that apparently most appeal to him. But the development and purpose for these gods, and the power of them in the lives of their devotees, cannot be truly understood apart from the culture and people that created them. Perhaps it is true that America is a bad place for the gods of other cultures, the gods immigrants brought with them. But that is because such beliefs cannot be sustained, and the gods cannot maintain their power in human minds, apart from the group of people that spawned them.

Similarly, the "new" American gods are created and wield power as part of our American culture. Gaiman doesn't seem to be able to identify them very well, falling back on "this is a bad place for gods." But, from what I can see, our culture is creating idols just as every human culture has. We depend on them and fear them and serve them just as the ancient pagans did. And our American gods are made by people, consciously or unconsciously, just as the ancient ones were: for a social purpose. Appealing to a deep human need, in a way that will unite and subdue individuals for the sake of social power and security. They may be less supernatural these days (which may be part of the reason Gaiman doesn't find them so interesting) but they are just as transcendent, "something greater than myself." We, the People continues to demand our homage and obedience.